A portion of the report by Transparency International Georgia on advertising market in the country, which compares ad sales of two weekly magazines, was denounced by one of those magazines, Tabula, for “drawing a hasty, superficial and ultimately erroneous conclusion”.
The report, released on December 13, is 38-page research of the country’s advertising market, which gives an insight into the sector run by, as the report puts it, small network of interlinked business partners with ties to the authorities, causing market's monopolization and thus hindering development of sustainable media in the country. Probably most of the stir caused so far by the report is however related to those several lines in the research, which briefly discusses the case of Liberali and Tabula.
The report says, citing media market observers, that although reach of newspapers and magazine is much smaller than that of broadcasters, print advertising nonetheless is heavily influenced by politics; then the report continues with a paragraph titled “Tabula versus Liberali”, saying that Tabula, ran by Tamara Chergoleishvili, the wife of National Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria, has “an impressive number of full-page ads” including from state agencies and businesses with “close relations” to the authorities.
“At the same time, its independent direct competitor, the weekly Liberali magazine with a largely similar target audience as Tabula, has been struggling to attract any advertising clients,” the report reads.
In a separate part, the report quotes Liberali publisher and editor-in-chief, Shorena Shaverdashvili, who says that businesses refrain from buying ad space in her magazine because of self-censorship as advertisers, fearing negative consequences for their businesses, are reluctant to cooperate with media outlets critical to the authorities.
According to the same report Kavkasia and Maestro television stations had cases when clients withdrew their ads shortly after signing contracts with these stations because of political pressure. The report also says, that the Batumi-based newspaper, Batumelebi, also experiencing similar cases in the past.
After the report came out, Tabula magazine released a written statement expressing “serious concerns about the quality” of the research and calling on TI Georgia for “retraction and correction… of that part of the report which names Tabula to illustrate the effect of political pressure on the advertising sector.”
The magazine accused authors of the report of treating Tabula unfairly because its editor or any other representative was not interviewed for the report, while Liberali’s editor was and even quoted in the research. The magazine argued that its marketing strategy is different from the one of Liberali – among others offering advertisers lower ad prices and larger target audience including through its monthly free-of-charge English-language edition; the magazine said that this and other differences between the two magazine were ignored and not properly analyzed by the authors of the report.
In a response, TI Georgia said in a statement on December 14, that the organization was “a bit surprised” by Tabula’s reaction, “as in our report, we have not accused Tabula or its owner and editor-in-chief of any wrongdoing.”
“Tabula was not the focus of our research report which rather tried to highlight structural problems in the Georgian advertising sector,” TI Georgia said. “The paragraph talking about Tabula is based on facts that so far have not been disputed and which are visible to anybody that reads the magazine: what we underlined is that Tabula has a lot of advertising.”
It said that the portion of the report aimed at highlighting the fact that ads from government agencies and its owned enterprises, paid for with public funds, were among the advertisers in the Tabula magazine. “We believe that there should be a public debate about how government funds in form of advertising is allocated and how this process can be fair and transparent in order to ensure that public funds are not allocated to selected media outlets, which could become a hidden subsidy,” TI Georgia said.
Tabula has further stepped up its efforts to seek retraction of the chapter with, as it put it, “tabloid-like title” (Tabula versus Liberali) when the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Tamara Chergoleishvili, sent a letter to the Transparency International’s headquarters in Berlin saying that the magazine’s reputation has been “wrongly damaged”. The letter, which is also addressed to the U.S. embassy, USAID (which funded the report through IREX-Georgia implemented G-MEDIA program), says that the magazine is “entitled to both a retraction and an apology by Transparency International Georgia.”
Allegations about businesses being reluctant to advertise with Liberali because it is critical to the authorities and because it is often running investigative reports have often been becoming an issue of discussions in media circles since the magazine was launched in May, 2009. Debates on the issue further intensified after the Tabula magazine was launched a year later by Tamara Chergoleishvili, who in one of her interviews at the time said that the magazine was launched with funding from “a group of libertarian businessmen”, including Kakha Bendukidze, Lado Gurgenidze and Davit Kezerashvili. A better marketing strategy was among the key arguments cited by the Tabula magazine during such debates as a reason behind having ads. But this argument has always been declined as irrelevant by the Liberali; as its publisher Shorena Shaverdashvili once said she had no such problems with attracting ads into her another magazine, which has no political content.
In a separate statement released on December 16, the Transparency International Georgia thanked all the media outlets for feedback on its report and said that their reactions, including the one by the Tabula magazine, were attached to the report’s website.
“We welcome an open and broad discussion about the findings of our research and on what should be done to promote fairness, transparency, accountability, professionalism and growth in the Georgian advertising and media sector,” TI Georgia said.